Why a fight with Benjamin Netanyahu is good news for Jeremy Corbyn

With the row over the wreath into its fourth day, Corbyn had been fighting a clumsy rearguard action. A fight with Bibi shifts things onto safer territory.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Few politicians would pick a fight with the Israeli prime minister with their party in the throes of an anti-Semitism crisis but Jeremy Corbyn has done just that. Having been attacked by Benjamin Netanyahu for his attendance at a wreath-laying ceremony for two of the architects of the 1972 Munich murders on Twitter this evening, the Labour leader has responded in kind with fierce criticism of his regime’s conduct.

The confrontational strategy is bold but politically astute. With the row over the wreath into its fourth day, Corbyn had been fighting a clumsy rearguard action. In taking the fight to Netanyahu directly, he has reclaimed the initiative and control over the narrative. The top line of this story is no longer about the minutiae of what Corbyn did or didn't do in Tunis.

More significant – both for this story in particular and the broader mess he finds himself in over anti-Semitism – is the opportunity the Israeli leader’s attack gave him, and alacrity with which it has been taken. A febrile atmosphere at home means Corbyn has had scant opportunity to attack the Israeli government’s record on human rights and the actions of its military in Palestine without exacerbating his party’s anti-Semitism crisis.

He could not asked for better than a spat with Netanyahu himself. That it allows for an attack on widely reviled and specific policy and conduct rather than the state in the abstract also helps his cause. It firmly demarcates the line – so unclear of late – between left-wing criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. A negative story that has dogged Corbyn for days has been weaponised to his advantage.

So too, perversely, can the fact that relations between the Israeli government and the Labour Party have reached a historic nadir.

Just before Netanyahu’s attack tonight, Mark Regev, Israel’s ambassador to the UK, unfavourably contrasted Corbyn’s supposed response to the Munich massacre with that of Harold Wilson. In April, Avi Gabbay, the leader of the Israeli Labor Party, cut ties with his British counterpart over anti-Semitism. Gabbay has charted a course rightward and Regev and Netanyahu embody a regime whose actions are anathema to the liberal left (and indeed many British Jews).

That this Israeli political establishment doesn't like Corbyn and his politics, his allies say, proves that he is right on foreign policy. In attacking him, Netanyahu could well have handed him a reprieve.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.